The Taliban’s Opium Policy: “Just say No”

By James Durso

In the summer of 2023, the Taliban implemented the ban on opium poppy decreed by supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzadain in April 2022. The Taliban told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) they banned poppy cultivation because of the harmful effects of opium and because it violates their religious beliefs, despite the 2022 crop being “the most profitable in years” according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The 2022 opium crop was planted five months before the Haibatullah’s order in April, when the Taliban “launched a campaign against the ephedrine and methamphetamine labs,” according to analyst David Mansfield.

UNODC reported that Afghanistan produced 86% of global opium production in 2021, and that opium accounted for 7-11% of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2019.

But, taking a glass-half-empty approach, the U.S.-government funded think tank, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), criticized the move, claiming it “will have negative economic and humanitarian consequences” and was “bad for Afghans and the world.” Left unsaid is why America’s two-decade, $2 trillion dollar nation-building effort failed to eliminate opium poppy and transition the Afghan agriculture sector to profitable cultivation of licit crops.

The UK drug policy house Transform laments, “The Taliban’s opium ban could be catastrophic for Europe with a threat of fentanyl filling the gap in the heroin market.” The observation regarding fentanyl is probably correct, but the wider statement neglects the addiction, corruption, and criminality in Afghanistan and the transit states caused by First World narcotics consumption.

If the Taliban fails, at least it won’t be a trillion-dollar failure.

Over the course of the U.S./NATO occupation, Afghan opium production climbed steadily, eventually reaching the highest level in history. But now, Helmand province, the source of more than 50% of Afghanistan’s opium, has turned 94% of its arable land over to a wheat crop and, country-wide, opium production is down 99%.

The Taliban may be following the example of the Communist Party of China following the 1949 revolution. In the 1930s, opium was a major cash crop in China but the Mao government, starting in the 1950s, cracked down with a mix of “unrestrained repression and social reform,” executing opium dealers and sending addicts to reeducation camps.

The Taliban have a variety of reasons to suppress opium production. Aside from their religious objections, they hope to reduce domestic consumption, important in an agricultural economy where, per UNODC “opioid use was detected in 10.1 per cent of the rural population in Afghanistan, three times more than in the population of urban areas.”

Also, reducing opium production will dry up financial resources that might fund opposition to their rule, because the Taliban likely remember how well that worked once before: In the 1980s, the mujahideen used drug proceeds to fund their fight against Soviet forces – at a time when Afghan opium produced five percent of the world’s heroin. Today, the Taliban may be unable to directly confront and eject the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which is a must if they hope to gain exclusive control of their territory, but can directly attack a potential source of cash for their competitors, signaling to the West that it and they have a common enemy.

Last, by forcing farmers to diversify their crops, the Taliban can strive for food security in response to the West’s economic warfare campaign, the intent of which may be to increase misery and drug addiction.

The Taliban may also have an external rationale, to force engagement with the West, which has only one policy – Afghanwomenandgirls – which is really a policy to not engage as the Taliban are unlikely to flex. This way Washington and Brussels can sound high-minded when their real intent is to do nothing, largely to avoid reminding the public of the 2021 defeat in the Hindu Kush while they promise it will be different in Ukraine.

Ceasing opium cultivation will be popular with neighboring countries as they are the corridors used to move opium to markets in Europe and Russia.

Iran is a major transit corridor for Afghan opium and, while some officials of the Islamic Republic may facilitate and profit from trafficking, Afghan eradication may help the country deal with its high rate of drug addiction – at 2.2% of the population the highest in the world –

and its fight against HIV/AIDS, most of which is caused by drug injection.  Iran accounts for 90% of world opium seizures per UNODC, and Iranian officials claim most of it transits Pakistan before reaching Iran. Iran claims 3,700 border guards and soldiers have died fighting drug traffickers.

Iran and Afghanistan have seen armed clashes recently, the dispute caused by disagreement over sharing the water of the Helmand River that flows to Iran. A successful effort by the Taliban to cease poppy cultivation will rebound to Iran’s benefit and may be one way for the Taliban to signal to Iran that it is interested in fixing regional problems.

Pakistan is an opium transit country due to its proximity to the poppy growing areas of southern Afghanistan, and it accounts for large seizures of opium, morphine, and heroin.

The central government of Pakistan has struggled against the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), based in Kandahar, Afghanistan, since the TTP rebelled against Islamabad in 2007 for cooperating with the U.S. war on terror. Pakistan officials claim the TTP recently attacked a police station in the port city of Karachi, and that the TTP has increased attacks since November 2022 when it ended a Taliban-brokered ceasefire with the government.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share at least seven rivers but have no formal agreement on how to jointly manage the water, and the two countries have each embarked on water projects without consulting the other. The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan planned to build  13 dams and reservoirs upstream on Kabul River, which would have drastically depleted water flow to Pakistan, further inflaming tensions. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the foreign money to pay for the dams, are gone, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan may embark on a smaller scale water project that will worsen relations with Pakistan. (For example, diverting the waters of the Amu Darya River to an irrigation project, which has alarmed Kabul’s water-stressed Central Asian neighbors.)

The TTP problem is a problem of Pakistan’s own making and solving it may bring to light the active role of Pakistan’s security services and military in fostering the group. On the other hand, assistance from the international development banks and the United Nations may help Kabul and Islamabad hammer out a water sharing agreement. In the interim, ceasing poppy shipments via Pakistan territory will signal to Pakistan that the Taliban recognizes the source of the problem and is working on a solution. (The TTP is likely funding its operations by taxing drug shipments that cross its territory.)

The Central Asian republics are all transit channels for Afghan opium but Tajikistan is unique in that narcotics trafficking may account for 30% of its GNP, despite the government’s policy to cooperate in international narcotics interdiction efforts. If the Taliban ban is successful, Dushanbe will need international assistance to diversify its economy.

The West can test Taliban intentions, or selective enforcement of an opium ban, by giving Kabul information gathered by satellites or surveillance aircraft. If the Taliban move quickly to eradicate the fields it will signal their intent to follow through on their statements. And this will increase the neighbors’ confidence in Kabul, and their willingness to cooperate. The U.S. and Europe won’t be happy if the Central Asian republics, Iran, Pakistan, and China upgrade their relations with Kabul (though no one will officially recognize Kabul until Beijing does), but they are all “neighbors forever” and can’t hid behind wide oceans.

Afghanistan’s neighbors in South and Central Asia want to complete regional infrastructure projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the TAPI natural gas pipeline, the Trans-Afghan Railway, the CASA-1000 electricity project, and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway that were delayed by the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan.

The Taliban no doubt noted the recent China-Central Asia summit in Xi’an, China and the announcement of educational, business, and infrastructure development projects and may want to be part of China’s development plan for Central Asia. Relations with the Taliban will be start-and-stop, though Beijing’s recent agreement to discuss banking ties with Kabul suggests China is moving closer to Afghanistan, if only to get access to all that lithium.

In the future, the Taliban should focus improving relations with Central Asia, South Asia, Iran, China, Turkey, and Russia, instead of the West. For years, it was U.S. policy to press the Kabul government to attack drug trafficking, but too many “friendly” Afghan officials were personally profiting from narcotics so that effort was destined to fail. Failure also benefitted Western officials and contractors who received seemingly endless subventions to keep trying, and victory would have been action against interest. (Those vacation homes don’t buy themselves.)

Now there is a government in Kabul with goals that complement Washington’s. However, the American policy of sanctions and isolation will antagonize Afghanistan’s neighbors who want to take advantage of the Taliban policy to stop the flow of narcotics through their territory so they can pursue peace in the region by growing their economies.

Washington should signal it supports regional integration and development in the wake of its failed intervention, and doing so would help it redeem itself with local leaders and citizens, but the question is: Can America be magnanimous in defeat?

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Featured Image: Opium poppy heads. Credit: Shutterstock.